I knew two things about digging at Vindolanda before I arrived here. It would be hard work and it would rain. So far they were right about one thing.
Mornings are easy going. We don’t leave the cottages until 9:00 AM so there is time to relax. The ten minute drive to site on the Military Road which follows Hadrian’s wall is gorgeous and we usually get a few good tunes in on the way. Then it’s go time. After parking at the site’s West gate we head down a bumpy country road between the North Field and the site. Entering the site from the North we head straight for our tools behind the excavation shed where we enjoy lunch, tea time, birthday cake, lectures and pottery processing. We fill a few wheel barrows with as many shovels and spades, pick axes, scoops, buckets, brushes, context bags and trays, surveying equipment, and Wellington boots as ten people will need and we head back across the road to the North.
The North Field is full of sheep and cows so you have to take care not to leave the entrances to the North Field and the site unattended or opened. The trench is a short walk into the field past our burgeoning spill pile. Sometimes you have to usher the cows out of the way.
In the trench each team of two gathers whatever tools will be necessary for their specific task, some are identifying the edges of Roman defensive ditches, others are exploring unidentified areas of the trench, while some may have some other feature to define. Now 9:30 we only have two and a half hours until lunch (12:00-1:00) and then there’s only an hour and a half to tea (2:30-3:00) and we usually clean the trench up at about 4:00 so there is only five hours for digging. These are five very hard spent hours so the lunch and tea break are crucial for endurance and morale.
Digging is tough, but if all we had to do was get earth out of the ground and haul it away we would already be done here. The complicated part is the archaeology. As you take a spade full out into a wheel barrow someone has to go through it with a trowel or their bare hands depending on its sensitivity and any finds are deposited in their appropriate context bag which will later provide evidence of its origin in the trench.
Any small finds – pottery with a stamp or graffito, shoes, leather objects, tools no matter how rudimentary, and many other objects of interest – are given more precedence and their find spot is recorded with the surveying equipment. Some ground features, such as the heat splash left by an oven fire or the soil changes at the sides of ditches are carefully revealed and not removed until understood and recorded. All of these factors slow down digging.
Yet one comes to recognize the sensitivity of a particular area. For instance, I spent my first week digging out an area which led from a tile floor to a fire feature left in the soil five meters away. It was very intense work. Our first week in the field and suddenly we were digging through material with Roman pot sherds and lots of little bits of brick. The context remained purely Roman and by the end of the week we had almost finished identifying the oven feature at the end of our trench which was comprised of clay soil that had been fired red and looked and felt like crushed brick. It took on the shape of the fire pit once there, like half of a bowl with a meter diameter. In hindsight I can tell you that due to our lack of experience we had been too timid and we could have met the goal long before the week’s end. Now that I have some experience I am beginning to enter the trench with the confidence that is needed for a successful excavation.
This week my partner and I cleared a great lot of dirt in a large area between two Victorian drains. In the corner we came to a very interesting feature that seemed like some kind of a fire pit. Once we dug into it and started sampling the ash deposits inside of it we realised that we had something unique. A clay cap had been placed over an area about 2m2 and 50cm deep filled with what appears to be partially burnt fuel made of very small twigs called bracken. We had anaerobic conditions. At the very end of Wednesday we were just finishing up cleaning out the excavated area of the hole when I pulled out of a puddle a Roman shoe in good condition. It was a fortunate find after a day of getting covered in black mud. The nature of this feature itself remains unclear, but it is likely somehow involved with the oven feature that was excavated two weeks ago.
The supervisors have been emphasizing that although you have to take care to find all artifacts in your section of excavation, you have to recognize what your goals are and what must be done to reach them. Our goal was to sink our area of the trench down as far and as fast as we could until we found something important. It was tough work but an important task for the future of our trench in the North Field. Thursday was an exciting day because we were finally beginning to drop this section of the trench after finishing with the pit in the corner. Unfortunately we were immediately confronted by a Victorian clay drainpipe. It will be a nuisance but it is at least advantageously placed not directly through the middle of our section.
Finding small finds is very exciting. Buried at Vindolanda are perfectly preserved leather shoes, wooden combs and other cosmetic items, writing tablets with cursive Latin in ink, coins, and lots of pot sherds, all of which are crucial to our understanding of the site. Nevertheless, an excavator cannot let these objects steal their focus from what is important, which is quickly, thoroughly, and effectively identifying the features in the ground which they are excavating. They could be a building foundation, a fort ditch, or some other feature left imprinted in the ground. These are what we are really looking for, not random bits of treasure, and until they are fully identified, recorded, and placed into their broader context our work here is incomplete. It is a hard job, a dirty job, and a fun job. With luck and the weather on our side we are all doing our best to get the job done.